If you visit Christ Church (Old North Church) in Boston’s North End and peruse the many plaques lining its walls, you may notice one that seems out of place in this icon of American independence. It commemorates Maj. John Pitcairn, a British officer.
The plaque reads:
Major John Pitcairn
While Rallying the Royal Marines
at the Battle of Bunker Hill
was carried from the field to the boats
on the back of his son
who kissed him and returned to duty
He died June 17. 1775 and his body
was interred beneath this church
Maj. John Pitcairn
John Pitcairn had not planned, of course, to take up permanent residence in the New World. He was born on Dec. 28, 1722, on Scotland’s southeast coast to the Rev. David Pitcairn and Katherine Hamilton Pitcairn. His father, a minister in Dysart for 50 years, also served as chaplain of the Cameronian Regiment during the War of Spanish Succession. In 1770, David Pitcairn won election as a Fellow of the Royal Society for his contributions to botany. The family was well known in the 18th century, making its mark in the fields of botany, medicine and the military. Sadly, however, that fame has passed into the dust of history.
John grew up next to the sea. Perhaps the nearness of the sea was in his blood, or possibly due to his father’s familiarity with the military, he was commissioned a lieutenant in Cornwall’s 7th Marines at age 24. It wasn’t until 1755 that the marines became permanent as the Royal Marines, and John retained his lieutenancy. In 1756, John was promoted to captain.
The year 1757 saw him on board HMS Lancaster, eventually landing in Canada during the Seven Years War (known in America as the French and Indian War). How long he stayed in Canada is not clear. In 1771, he won promotion to major, He must have returned home at least once, since his son Alexander was born in Kent in 1768.
Then in 1774, he was posted to Boston, Province of Massachusetts Bay, in command of a 600-man marine contingent. The posting was in response to the growing unrest in the colonies, especially in Boston. It would be his final post.
By all accounts, Major Pitcairn was well received in Boston, not a minor feat in a city that was rife with intrigue and a growing distrust of the British military. Boston citizens, however, were not his first problem upon landing. His greatest problem was his own command.
Pitcairn’s new command came from Plymouth, and by his own account, were “troublesome” animals. With a lack of adequate officers, and constantly in trouble, the marines took to selling their kit to buy rum, a practice that killed several. Their lack of discipline and unruly behavior would have only reinforced Bostonian feelings against the military.
Uncharacteristic for an officer of his time, Pitcairn moved into the men’s barracks to keep order and end the drunkenness. Harsh enforced discipline that included, to his regret, flogging, and constant drilling turned the unit back into a military force.
Once Pitcairn moved out of the barracks, he was billeted with Francis Shaw, who favored the growing rebel movement. The billeting of soldiers in private homes was one of the pillars of that rebellious attitude. This home was in the very center of that coming rebellion.
Francis Shaw, a wealthy Boston merchant, owned a three-story brick house next to Paul Revere’s still-extant house. Shaw owned Pew #16 at Christ Church, where he had been a junior and senior warden. Christ Church stood only a few minutes’ walk from Shaw’s house, and Pitcairn joined the parish.
A Popular Guy
By all accounts, Pitcairn’s respectful attitude, open and honest personality and even temperament gained him acceptance in the Shaw household. He often held social gatherings there involving British officers and locals including Revere. In spite of political differences, the events were held in a civilized and convivial atmosphere. Pitcairn was more fortunate than most since his sons William and Robert served in Boston at the time, as was his son-in-law Capt. Charles Cochrane, married to Pitcairn’s daughter Katherine. All three regularly participated in Pitcairn’s social gatherings.
There was one troubling incident in the household, however. Also billeted with the Shaws was a Lieutenant Wragg. Wragg’s personality appears to have been the opposite of Pitcairn’s, to the extent that he deliberately insulted colonists in Francis’s son Samuel’s presence. Samuel took offense and threw a glass of wine in Wragg’s face, an action that could easily have led to a deadly duel. Major Pitcairn immediately intervened and defused the situation, much to the gratitude of Francis Shaw. It can only be imagined what conversation Major Pitcairn had with the lieutenant afterward. However, the incident was not repeated.
Major Pitcairn regularly attended services at Christ Church, but he was also a military man. As pious as he may have been on the Sabbath, his language while on duty was colorful enough to have been remarkable in its profanity! In this he joins the company of many military men in all armies from the past to the present.
The Shot Heard ‘Round the World
British authorities in Boston were well-aware of the brewing tensions. On April 18, 1775, Major Pitcairn’s next-door neighbor awaited word of the movement of British forces. The British, under Lt. Col. Francis Smith, assembled a force of regulars and marines to march on Lexington and Concord. They intended to locate and destroy rebel stores of guns, ammunition and gunpowder. Pitcairn, second in command, led the advance guard.
On April 19, 1775, at about 5:00 a.m., Major Pitcairn’s advance force reached Lexington and encountered a 70-man militia company commanded by Captain John Parker. Pitcairn ordered his men to hold fire. He then ordered Parker’s command to lay down their arms and disperse. Parker, in turn, ordered his men to disperse. But in the excitement and confusion of the moment, some unknown individual fired a shot, and a one-sided fight began. The British volley killed seven and mortally wounded one. They then marched on to Concord, reaching there at 8:00 a.m.
At Concord, the situation was different. Now forewarned and with three hours notice, over 400 armed militia had gathered. Major Pitcairn moved to secure the North Bridge. Seeing smoke from Lexington, and mistakenly believing the British fired the town, a large rebel force began an advance. The outnumbered advance British retreated across the bridge.
Account of John Pitcairn
What happened next is best described by John Pitcairn:
“Six companies of Light infantry were detached by Lt Colo Smith to take possession of two bridges on the other side of Concord…when we were advanced about two miles of Lexington, intelligence was received that about 500 men in arms were assembled, determined to oppose the Kings troops, and retard them in their march. On this intelligence, I mounted my horse and galloped up to the six Light Companies.
When I arrived at the head of the advance Company, two officers came and informed me, that a man of the rebels attempted to shoot them, but the piece flashed in the pan. On this I gave directions to the troops to move forward, but on no account to fire, or even attempt it without orders; when I arrived at the end of the Village, I observed drawn up upon a Green near 200 rebels; when I came within 100 yards of them, they began to file off towards some stone walls on our right flank.
The Light Infantry, observing this, ran after them. I instantly called to the soldiers not to fire, but surround them and disarm them, and after several repetitions of those positive orders to the man, not to fire, etc. some of the rebels who had jumped over the wall fired four or five shots at the soldiers, which wounded a man of the Tenth and my horse was wounded in two places, from some quarter or other, and at the same time, several shots were fired from a meeting house on our left. Upon this, without any order or regularity, the Light Infantry began a scattered fire, and continued in that situation for some little time, contrary to the repeated orders continued orders both of me and the officers that were present…”
With the “Shot heard ’round the world,” the Revolutionary War began. The British began a long and costly retreat back to Boston. During the retreat, Major Pitcairn had his horse shot out from under him. One version claimed the horse carried a brace of highly decorated Scottish pistols that the rebels captured. Then Israel Putnam carried them throughout the war, including at Bunker Hill. Another version has it that they were captured in the British baggage train, but there would have been no baggage train for a day expedition that expected to return to Boston. However, while the pistols do in fact exist and are displayed in Lexington, the crest on them is not that of Pitcairn, and there was more than one horse lost that day.
British forces were now ensconced in Boston, completely surrounded by rebel forces that cut off all avenues of advance. While they still controlled the seas and could be supplied by boat, they could not move freely outside Boston by land.
On June 17, 1775, the British moved against rebel entrenchments on Breed’s Hill (mistakenly called Bunker Hill, even at the time). The American forces held fast against two British attacks. At this point, both sides had fallen into disarray. Large numbers of colonists deserted as they ran out of ammunition. The British in turn had suffered devastating casualties. British Commander in Chief Sir Henry Clinton had sent over 400 regulars and additional marines from Boston to bolster a third assault. The bayonet was the focus of the third assault.
Major Pitcairn, commanding the Marines, including his 21-year-old son William, landed at the South End of the Charlestown peninsula and made his way to the battlefield. In blistering and debilitating summer heat, they pushed through a line of infantry falling back under fire. He ordered them to “Break and let the Marines through.” According to one story, probably apocryphal, he threatened to “Bayonet the buggers” if they did not move.
The Fog of War
The narration at this point becomes a bit cloudy. Tradition states that he was shot by Peter Salem, one of several black soldiers who fought in the battle, mortally wounding him with a shot in the chest as he topped the crest of the redoubt. However, the British version claims he was shot at the bottom of the hill. But in any event, it is certain that Pitcairn was seriously wounded multiple times, one being a shot to his breast. While it is entirely possible that Salem did fire the fatal shot, in the confusion and smoke of the battle, it could easily have been fired by anyone. Pitcairn would have been a target for numerous riflemen.
John Trumbull depicted the scene in his famous painting of the Battle of Bunker Hill, portraying both Pitcairn and Salem. Unfortunately, Trumbull took serious artistic license with the setting. He tried to lump the entire battle and its personalities into one tiny space and moment of time. No extant image of John Pitcairn exists, and his son David modeled for the painting.
In spite of his numerous wounds, Pitcairn did not immediately die. His son William carried him off the field and then returned to the battle, saying “I have lost my father.” Showing the fondness that his Marines felt for him, some replied “We have all lost a father!” Transported by boat back to Boston, he was taken to a house on Prince Street, in the North End. Amazingly, given his injuries, he was fully conscious. A realist, he knew he would not likely survive.
Death of John Pitcairn
General Gage sent Dr. Kart, a personal physician. Major Pitcairn refused treatment until he put his affairs in order. Once done, Dr. Kast examined him, and pulled off his waistcoat, a fatal mistake. Apparently, the waistcoat had stopped up the chest wound, and when pulled away, he immediately began to hemorrhage. In spite of this he survived long enough to have the bullet removed, keeping in mind that there were no anesthetics in the 18th century. Two hours later, however, he died.
Family, friends and enemies alike mourned Maj. John Pitcairn. His remains were interred in the crypt of Christ Church where he remains to this day. One story has it that in 1791, someone shipped his coffin to London for burial in a vault belonging to a brother and son, but Boston tradition denies this.
John Pitcairn Descendants
In the early 1740s, John Pitcairn married Elizabeth “Betty” Dalrymple. John and Elizabeth had several sons and four daughters. His son William, as noted, joined the Royal Marines and was with him when he was killed. Sometime between 1775 and 1779, William won promotion to captain. He died in London in November 1779 of an unknown cause.
His son David became a noted physician at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London, and his son Alexander entered the British legal profession. His son Thomas retired as a lieutenant colonel in the British Army. All four of his daughters, Annie, Katherine, Johanna and Janet married army or naval officers.
Another son, Robert Pitcairn, served as a midshipman in the Royal Navy. On July 3, 1767, while on board the sloop HMS Swallow, Robert, then 15, stood watch. He spotted an unknown island in the South Pacific. The captain magnanimously named the island Pitcairn Island in his honor. Pitcairn Island would later become famous as the scene of the Bounty mutiny. In January 1770, Robert served on board an East India Company ship when it vanished, lost with all hands.
Samuel Shaw, the youth whose life Major Pitcairn almost certainly saved from a one-sided duel, served as a colonial officer throughout the Revolutionary War. In 1784 he sailed to China as George Washington’s Consul to China. His father, Francis, died on Oct. 18, 1784 and laid to rest in Copp’s Hill Burial Ground. His third great grandson, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, commanded the 54th Massachusetts Colored Volunteer Infantry Regiment in the Civil War.
Peter Salem was born a slave in Worcester, Massachusetts Bay Colony, on Oct. 1, 1750. In 1775 he was sold to Lawson Buckminster, who when appointed a Major in the Continental Army, emancipated Peter so he could serve in the army. He fought in several early battles of the Revolution and received an honorable discharged in 1779. Salem served another three-month term in 1780. He settled down in Salem, married in 1783, moved to Leicester and struggled financially. He died in a poorhouse in Framingham in 1816.
Time has not been kind to Major Pitcairn in his own country of Scotland. All vestiges of the Pitcairn family in Dysart, Scotland have disappeared, along with the memory of his name. In a curious twist of history, his former enemies better remember Maj. John Pitcairn in a country he never planned to call his own.
Major John Pitcairn is a distant cousin of the author (14th Cousin, 8 times removed). Somewhat ironically Major Pitcairn fought against 7 of the author’s relatives at Concord Bridge, 5 on Battle Road, and 12 on Breed’s Hill.
The author and his wife Anne were married in Christ Church (Old North Church).
Images: Revere House By Beyond My Ken – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=77978509.